Now that Covid has curbed my regular visits to the public library I have been re-reading many of the old books on my shelves, and one of them was Extra-terrestrial Civilizations by Issac Asimov. In it Asimov boldly states that “The number of planets in our galaxy on which a technological civilization is now in existence is roughly 530,000.
The book was written more than forty years ago and Asimov then supported this astonishing argument with impressive logic and mathematical reasoning. He started by calculating the approximate number of stars in our own Milky Way galaxy. He discounted the probable numbers of red giants and red dwarves and other unlikely stars and calculated the probable percentage of sun-like stars similar to our own sun.
Next he calculated how many of those sun-like stars might have evolved planetary systems like our own. The figures were diminishing but were still astronomical. (Pun intended.) from this figure he calculated a conservative number where one or more of those planets might be found in the now famous Goldilocks belt, neither too close nor too far from its parent star.
A whole section was devoted to analysing the generation and evolution of life and calculating the likely percentage of potential planets where life as we know it would have emerged. Allowing for the fifty per cent possibility that on reaching our nuclear level of technology many planets would have committed nuclear suicide, or perhaps be wiped out by population pressures or a fatal virus such as the Black Death or Covid, the figure was halved. That staggering final figure of 530,000 still remained.
To see the exact calculations and vast depth of reasoning you have to read the book but this is its conclusion in a nutshell. All of this was written before any planetary systems or earth-like planets were actually observed. Now our telescopes are much more powerful and the Hubble telescope operates in space above the Earth. The various methods of research and observation have magnified our ability to see further and see more and we now know that many earth-like planets do actually exist.
Forty years on there are no obvious flaws to Asimov's reasoning and movie franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek have made us familiar with the idea that we are not alone. Man has always looked up at the stars and wondered what might be up there. Is there unreachable alien life looking back at us. We still do not actually know but the potentiality and the possibilities now seem endless.
Science fiction in movies and books has made us familiar with idea that there must be alien life out there. Usually this alien life is portrayed as war-like and hostile. They are predators seeking to enslave us or eat us, or to carelessly destroy us in order to steal our planet for a new home for themselves.
I reversed this trend with my series of EXTINCTION'S EDGE. My aliens, the Marregh/Riken, were a peaceful aquatic species of time travellers who were appalled at the senseless savagery and slaughter they observed in the Vietnam War. They were so horrified that they had to consider whether the human race should be exterminated before they could export their blind hatreds into the rest of the galaxy.
Isaac Asimov also concluded that any species that actually reached the ability to space travel would also be peaceful. The predators and the war-mongers would most likely destroy themselves along the way with their increasing weapons technology. Space travel would require such a huge expenditure of time, material and energy that it could only be achieved by full planetary cooperation. A species would have to outgrow petty politics, power-seeking and empire-building in order to work together for the common good and a common goal. A species that was still obsessed with internal wars and petty strife would reach self-extinction long before it reached another star.
This, to me, was the most fascinating part of the book. We live today in a world of multiple threats to the future of the human race. We survived the Cold War when the old Soviet Union and the USA came eyeball to eyeball on the brink of a nuclear war. Now those dangers are reviving again, Russian has rebuilt and regained its territorial ambitions. China is now a big and aggressive player in the nuclear game. In fact the players have multiplied and many more nations now have a nuclear arsenal. Again a nuclear holocaust seems to be only a matter of time. Fiction is full of mad dictators who can see gain for themselves in inciting the major powers to war, and fiction all to often inspires imitations in reality.
The end to humanity need not necessarily come in nuclear war. Over population and global warming may be the bigger dangers. Already these are combining with war and terrorism to force mass migrations where the well off rich fear that they are about to be swamped by the waves of the desperate poor. Drugs and drug gangs rule the worlds of organized crime. Borders are crumbling, or being reinforced by walls of steel.
Our planet is on a knife edge. The ozone layer is being destroyed. The glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Wild fires are raging. Heat waves, hurricanes and giant floods multiply as our climate changes and the weather goes crazy. The current world is in pretty bad shape. We don't need a black hole to swallow us up or a meteor strike to finish us off. We seem to be doing a pretty good job of self destruction.
The Covid pandemic illustrates our difficulties most of all. As I write the total world death toll has passed four million, and that is probably a low estimate as many countries cannot count or wilfully deny the real numbers. There are too many of us and the ease of modern travel makes it too easy for the virus and its variants to spread. A world without air travel, foreign holidays and total freedom of movement seems to horrible to contemplate, but are millions more Covid deaths the only alternative?
Of course, that would ease the population problem and it could be that this is Mother Earth's solution to a parasite species that is suffocating the planet by sheer weight of numbers. Asimov foresaw all of this forty years ago, all of his potential disasters are looming and it does seem that we are now at that point of balance where extinction is a real possibility. Do we go on to possibly conquer the stars, or do we end here with a glorious big bang or a polluted, starving, over-heated whimper?
If we are to survive and continue then it would seem that we have only one choice. We must all work together. Cooperation must replace competition in every sphere of human activity. There is no point in vaccinating the western world against Covid if we cannot vaccinate everyone, everywhere. The alternative is that Covid and its variants will continue to come back and haunt us.
There is no point in some countries seeking to reverse global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer if others persist in building more coal fired power stations and insisting that they have the right to catch up with the production of petrol driven motor cars. It is no longer a question of industrial and economic equality but of survival in our over-heated, post industrial world.
Political and power dreams, the pursuit and passions of ideologies, religions and empire building all have to be consigned to the past. We can no longer afford petty distractions and periods of destruction. Wars no longer bring any gains and a nuclear war on any international scale would reduce the world to a pitiful radioactive rubble.
To face the huge issues and problems that confront us all we must all be united. Global problems need global solutions.
Anyone who has read my three books of philosophy will be familiar with my argument that all faith must lead to God. The great religions of the world are all pathways, starting from different cultures and sources but leading to the same spiritual reality. This understanding now seems essential for human progress. We must have tolerance between religions and focus on their basic similarities rather than their cultural differences. We must stop harnessing faith to war with the mistaken idea that god is on any one particular side.
Race, ideology and nationhood are the other great dividers. We must understand that ALL lives matter, black and white, red and brown. Race, creed and colour are an accident of birth, and not a cause for hatred and fighting. Ideologies are dangerous illusions, democracy and communism both offer the same promises and both seek power. All nation states have a right to their national pride but not to dominate all others.
They key to our survival as a species is now cooperation. All races, faiths, creeds and cultures need to work together and to save ourselves we must save the planet. We are intelligent beings, capable of forethought and planning. We can recognize the mistakes we have made and hopefully work together to put things right.
The signs are good. Faith leaders are moving together, acknowledging that all the great faith streams are seeking the same Undefinable Reality. The United Nations and the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, Oxfam and various other international groups are all working for international cooperation.
Issac Asimov calculated that perhaps fifty percent of extra-terrestrial civilizations would survive this threshold of potential self destruction, so perhaps we have a fifty-fifty chance.